The Vaults comprise a network of tunnels and performance spaces beneath Waterloo Station, and they’ve rarely been put to better use than in this immersive fantasy production. The dank, wet tunnels have been transformed into a medieval palace, a forest, boudoirs and cabaret spaces to powerful effect. Despite having visited the Vaults many times before, the space felt both new and exciting, with a real sense of mystery and discovery.
The evening begins in the great hall, where you can buy drinks at the bar and soak up the atmosphere. If you opt for the VIP dining tickets – and I strongly recommend you do – you’ll be led upstairs to a sumptuously designed dining room and served a meal that’s a gastronomic delight, prepared by MasterChef semi-finalist and “gastro storyteller” Annie McKenzie. Full details of the outstanding menu are on the website below.
Loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe’s story The Masque of the Red Death, Red Palace tells the story of an unnamed Prince who, nearing the 1000th day of his autocratic reign, fears the legend that on this day he will die as a result of “woman’s sickness”. He’s already had all the women in the forest put to death as a precaution – or so he believes – and now he welcomes both the “nobles” (those on the balcony, with dining tickets) and the “peasants” (the rest of the audience) to his grand ball, shut off from the outside world. The Prince is played by a charismatic and strident Eleanor Dillon-Reams in a magnificent crown and painted-on moustache and beard: the cast of Red Palace is “wholly female and non-binary”.
After the Prince’s introduction the audience is split up into groups of a dozen or so, and you’re led in different directions through the fairy-tale inspired rooms that make up the storyline. Along the way you’ll visit the bathhouse, where you’ll be entertained by a singing mermaid in a bath (a fine-voiced Steffi Walker). You’ll drop into the gingerbread room, a cabaret venue with a bar where you’ll learn the true story of what happened to Gretel (a cheeky Emer Dineen) and her brother Hansel. You’ll weave through the festooned, mysterious corridors that lead to the hut of seer Baba Yaga (Porscha Present), joining in her seance, and visit the boudoir of Snow White (a far from pure Alice Morgan-Richards) as she’s visited by confused alchemist Tom (charmingly portrayed by Ella Prendergast). And deep in the forest, you’ll experience rebellion in the form of Red Riding Hood (Emily Essery, both inspirational and belligerent). On top of all that you’ll also be menaced by the Big Bad Wolf (Teddy Lamb), and teased by the mischievous Cat (a subtly clawing performance from Joanna Vymeris).
All the sets have been designed with taste, exuberance and a tremendous attention to detail. You sit on comfortable chairs and sofas as you experience each story, drink in hand, and if you choose you can wander at will through the sets and stories. The script is witty and naturalistic, and performed with gusto by the uniformly strong cast. Celine Lowenthal’s direction is full of surprises, with the characters ad-libbing as they interact with the audience at every stage.
Given the episodic and randomly sequenced nature of the production, the storyline does have a tendency to waver. The final scene is somewhat anticlimactic and too brief; an ensemble show such as this could have seen the key characters drawn together for a more subtle denouement. But this is a show about experiences, rather than plot. The audience on press night was delighted with the whole event, with many staying to drink and dance afterwards. This is not theatre in the traditional sense, but a wholly engrossing entertainment.
Concept & Creative Producer: Laura Drake Chambers
Director: Celine Lowenthal
Writer: Cressida Peever
Set & Costume Design: Maeve Black
Art Director: Thomas Kirk Shannon
Producer: Shotgun Carousel
Booking until: 12 January 2020
Box Office: 0207 401 9603
Booking Link: https://www.thevaults.london/red-palace